This is a story about a boy who has learnt to hide who he is, so he won’t get hurt. This is a story about a girl who started running away when she was eight years old, and she hasn’t stopped running away yet.
Their story isn’t my story, but our stories all overlapped and changed my life in more ways than I will ever be able to count.
The first time I saw Durham the sun was just rising over the historic city, painting the buildings in a glow of deep reds and bright golds. We drove past the cathedral, just as the sun was peeking through the stained-glass windows, washing the streets outside with a hundred colours.
My Uncle Stephen had dropped me off so early because he needed to get back to his own school in Yorkshire. My Uncle had brought me up since my parents had died in a car accident when I was five years old, and my Uncle ran a boarding school in Yorkshire for children who had had difficult starts in life and for children who had problems with school and tended to run away a lot.
It had been a fairly modern school for its time, it took both girls and boys, there was a lot more sports and nature walk than at most schools, as the majority of the students came there because they didn’t fit in in ‘conventional’ schools.
When I was younger, I used to like to think that I was quite worldly and knew a lot about people from different backgrounds and upbringings from growing up in such an unusual school, I hadn’t realised until I came to university quite how wrong I was.
Uncle Stephen had been more than thrilled when I had told him that I wanted to take a History degree so that I could teach History. He saw this as me following in his footsteps, he thought he was my role model.
In a way he had been, Uncle Stephen was the only parental figure that I could remember, and I had thought that he was the font of all wisdom whether it was on politics, education, or even foreign affairs.
Ever since I had been a little boy, I would look forward to my private time with him. The rest of the time, students or teachers or parents were always knocking on his office door. But every day from four o’clock until four-thirty, no one else was allowed in. I would come in every day for tea, and we would talk about our days and then discuss the newspaper.
When I had been small, he would just read me the parts that he thought I would find interesting, but as I got older, I would read the newspaper myself at breakfast, and then in the afternoon over our cups of tea, and slices of toast and jam we would discuss what we had both been interested in and our opinions on them.
I now realise of course that my Uncle Stephen is far from perfect, no mortal man is. I also now know that having role models is a fine thing, but if you try to emulate someone’s life, you put so much effort into copying someone else’s life that often you forget to live yourself.
Uncle Stephen pulled the car into a street of terraced houses that looked like post-war builds, so they were all quite new. On both sides of the road were starter homes one after another. The houses looked like three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom cardboard boxes on the surface, but when you scratched beneath that, each house seemed to breathe life.
I have found that you can tell a lot about families who lived in a house by looking at the outside of the house; if the garden is perfectly manicured so that the grass was all cut to the exact same length, then it is often a very prim and proper couple lived inside; if the garden is taken up by assorted bikes, roller skates that had been abandoned haphazardly, almost waiting for someone to trip over them all, the family that live inside probably have more than a few children.
The same thing went for washing lines, a family’s washing line usually in the back or front garden can say a lot about the inhabitants, not just the obvious things like nappies or tiny little boots meaning there’s a baby. But a line full of hand me down clothes which have been patched and taken in so many times but had been cleaned and hung with such care shows that that family might not have the brand new bright white tablecloths like Mr and Mrs next door, but they care for what they had, and they are proud of it.
The student house that I was going to be living in was on the end of the long road. There had been about fifteen houses on each side, and most of them were rented or had been bought by families, but a few were rented to students.
I had decided to live in a student house rather than university accommodation because this way I would have more freedom, less curfews and rules, and there would be less students living in one place so it would be quieter. It also gave me a chance to practise living independently, as I would have to cook and clean for myself.
It meant I would have a longer journey to classes or the library than if I had been living in university accommodation, but Uncle Stephen had bought me a bike which was going to make travelling through the city easier. Living on my own with a few other students was going to be a challenge, but I was eighteen, that was part of the fun of it!
‘Well, this is the right house, Matt,’ said Uncle Stephen as he climbed out of the car. ‘Number twenty-eight. Do you think we’re the first to arrive?’
Uncle Stephen had looked at me curiously, as I got out of the car and stood next to him. Then we had both started chuckling, it wasn’t even nine o’clock on a Sunday morning. We were the only people crazy enough to be moving in at this time in the morning!
We then unpacked all the boxes and suitcases from the car and secured the bike to the garden gate with a padlock, so it didn’t get stolen. If I had lost my bike, I was going to be doing a lot of walking over the next four years.
The boxes were clearly labelled; kitchen; bathroom; music sheets; and then several boxes for my books. The two suitcases had all my clothes. We unpacked the kitchen and bathroom boxes first, the house wasn’t provided with anything, so I had packed everything from a frying pan and a cereal bowl to a set of towels in assorted sizes including tea towels for the washing up.
Then had come the fun bit, as I had arrived first, I got first pick out of all the bedrooms. Two of the rooms were bigger than the last one, they both had large double beds with plenty of wardrobe space, and large mirrors.
But somehow, I had found myself drawn to the smaller of the three bedrooms, it only had a single bed, but it had a huge bay window seat where I could sit and read or look over the city as it had a great view. Most importantly about the smaller room though was that it had loads of books, and I had always lived and breathed from the moment that I could remember.
Uncle Stephen had had to leave once he had helped me move the boxes up to my new bedroom. I had unpacked my clothes quickly and stored the music sheets in one of the suitcases under my bed and then spent hours sorting out my books, trying to decide whether to organise them by size or colour.
I had eventually decided to sort them by theme and was just putting the last book in place when I heard a car stop outside the house, and the front door open. I had checked my watch and seen that it was two o’clock, I had missed lunch and spent nearly four hours organising and reorganising my books!
I heard someone calling from downstairs and ran out as soon as I could. I stood at the top of the stairs and saw a young man hidden behind three large cardboard boxes. The pile of boxes was so high, that I couldn’t actually see him properly.
‘Is there anybody there!’ called a muffled voice. ‘I could use a little help please!’
I had run down the stairs and took the top two boxes from him and nearly buckled under the weight.
‘Jesus, what have you got in here? Books?’ I had stammered, trying to get a proper hold on the boxes so that I wouldn’t drop them in case there was anything fragile.
‘Sod that!’ the other boy had said. Now that the top two boxes were gone, I could see him clearly. He had chocolate brown hair, and he was wearing a leather jacket other a white t-shirt and a pair of jeans. He had an impish grin, and his smile carried all the way through to his bright green eyes. He was fairly skinny, so I had wondered how he had managed to carry all three boxes in the first place.
‘Nah I’ve only bought a few books with me.’ chuckled the boy. ‘There’s a library isn’t there? Those are my music records.’
Sure enough, the boys’ parents had just come into the house with a record player and even a small set of speakers. He hadn’t brought any washing up gloves, but he had brought a pair of speakers for his record player with him.
We had carried the boxes of records up the stairs and put them down in one of the two spare rooms. The boy had seemed to inspect the windowsill and had run his hand along it, almost checking its height. Then he held out his other hand out, the first hand still on the windowsill.
‘Edmund, English Literature,’ he had said.
‘Mathew, History,’ I had replied shaking his hand.
‘Pleasure,’ said Edmund, ‘I hate all that fuss we had at school, referring to each other by last names. It just seemed so formal!’
I had merely nodded, not wanting to admit that at my old school everyone had been called by their first names, even the teachers!
My other housemate hadn’t arrived, but I had had a feeling that Edmund and I were going to get along just fine.